By: Georgie Nichol
The opening ceremony of YMCA175 was delivered in the most spectacular fashion! It began with a bold performance opening of the iconic “We Will Rock You” and followed with a staged re-telling of George Williams establishing the YMCA. The French arrived to the stage on bikes, having travelled from Paris with the original Paris basis agreement in hand, and people from all countries sat together in unity, proud to celebrate this incredible organisation.
From the moment we stepped inside the auditorium we could feel the energy and anticipation bouncing off the walls and reverberating around the stage. At one point the excitement bubbled over with an explosive conga line forming in seconds – there were almost immediately too many people and not enough room to dance! The flag bearing ceremony was not unlike the Olympic Games with patriotism alive and well – and yet an understanding and respect that diversity is our greatest strength. The largest collective applause was for the pride and refugee flags which brought emotion to the faces of many and confirmed our true commitment to becoming a more inclusive global organisation – paving the way for others to do the same.
In between inspirational keynotes, there were performances from an uplifting choir, the YMCA Glee club equivalent. Their contagious energy prompted a standing ovation from a crowd of over 3,000 people.
We were then transported back in time to 1844, the very beginning of the YMCAs founding by George Williams. The audience re-discovered an overwhelming respect for our past and the impact the YMCA has had throughout history – including two world conflicts, where support was provided to soldiers on the frontline and their families at home. We are now reaching 58 million people in 119 countries. Our growth has been exponential. The celebration transformed the venue into an electric hub of multiculturalism and connection with excitement zapping through the air giving us all goose bumps.
Young people shared their inspiring stories as activists of social change and social justice. A young woman by the name of Enzaree Kapri from Chicago shared a moving story of how her and her peers were forced to grow far too quickly when gun violence devastated her community. She told us that young people in Chicago are learning to become first responders out of necessity and firmly stated this reality is not acceptable.
“Lawmakers in the US care more about peoples’ perceptions of their rights than their actual safety… Stop believing that gun violence is someone else’s issue”
In response to the institutionalised racism and gang violence in her community she founded Project Orange Tree, a small but powerful idea that became the motivation for an entire country to raise gun violence awareness. Despite the sobering reality of her keynote – she closed with a message of hope
“I fully intend to change the world” – and we believe her!
Chief Executive of YMCA England and Wales, Denise Hutton affirmed our intergenerational approach to change “You are never too old to learn, never too young to lead”.
Patricia Pelton, the first female World YMCA President in our 175 year history, proudly assured us that inclusion and diversity are at the core of who we are. Her recent appointment and humble leadership approach continues to inspire women to seek and achieve global leadership positions.
“We must strive courageously to call out discrimination…we must support the oppressed, marginalised and uprooted, and create a human community of justice with love, peace and reconciliation”.
United Nations General Secretary’s ENVOY on YOUTH – Jayathma Wickramanayake congratulated the YMCA for creating a diverse community for all. She challenged young people to design bold and creative solutions – address social challenges and in doing so, identify their purpose in this changing world.
She urged us to boldly face and overcome obstacles including gender, racial discrimination and the inequalities that exist across health, education and employment. She conveyed her appreciation of the YMCA’s commitment to embed the UN Sustainable Development Goals in our global strategy. And she humbly prompted us to reflect on what a privilege it is to live in Australia, as 56 million live in poverty and conflict settings. Many of us were reminded of the delegates within the Asia and Africa Alliance that were refused visas to attend this event in London, a barrier that Australians rarely have to encounter, and something we must never take for granted.
Climate change surfaced in conversations again and again as the defining issue of our time. The natural disasters that continue to increase in magnitude and frequency exacerbate the vulnerability of already marginalised communities. The actions and inactions of generations past act as the catalyst to mitigate climate change. The heads of young people nodded in agreement to the urgency of this crisis.
Jayathma’s message was hopeful in urging us to realise that young people have a knack to turn challenge into opportunities and be the agents of hope that we need right now.
“Young people are not just leaders of tomorrow but leaders of today…”
The same message continued to surface – “a new generation of change makers will build the foundation for a better world. An investment in the potential of young people is an investment in our future.”
What a privilege to be part of such an incredible organisation – Happy 175 years to us!
– Georgie Nichol